The exact origin of the term "specialty coffee" is not clear, but it is generally attributed to Erna Knutsen, who is credited with popularizing the term in the United States in the 1970s. Knutsen was an importer and trader of high-quality Arabica coffees, and she used the term "specialty coffee" to distinguish these higher-grade coffees from the lower-grade Robusta coffees that were more commonly available at the time. The term caught on among coffee industry professionals and consumers, and it has since become a widely recognized term to describe high-quality, carefully sourced, and expertly roasted coffees. However, it is important to note that "specialty" is not a legally protected term, which means that anyone can use it to describe their coffee, regardless of its actual quality or characteristics.
It is also important to note that fair trade certification, while focused on ethical labor practices and fair prices for coffee producers, is not synonymous with specialty coffee. Fair trade certification focuses on social and economic justice for coffee producers, whereas specialty coffee certification focuses on the sensory attributes and quality of the coffee itself. While some specialty coffees may also be fair trade certified, the two terms are not interchangeable.
Specifically, specialty coffee refers to high-quality coffee beans grown at high altitudes under specific environmental climate conditions, also known as terroir. These conditions include:
- High altitudes: Specialty coffee is often grown at elevations between 1,200 and 2,000 meters above sea level. The high altitude slows down the maturation of the coffee cherries, allowing the beans to develop more complex flavors.
- Consistent temperatures: Specialty coffee is typically grown in areas with relatively stable temperatures, ideally between 60-70°F (15-21°C).
- High rainfall and humidity: Specialty coffee plants require a lot of water to grow, and are typically grown in areas with high rainfall and humidity.
- Rich soil: Specialty coffee is typically grown in areas with nutrient-rich soil. The plants need a lot of nutrients to grow and produce high-quality beans.
- Shaded environment: Coffee plants need protection from direct sunlight, and are often grown under the canopy of taller trees or on shaded terraces.
- Natural Pollination: Specialty coffee beans are often grown in regions where the environment is such that the pollination is done by natural means, such as insects and birds, rather than relying on human-assisted pollination.
These conditions are not always easy to find, and this makes the locations where specialty coffee grown quite limited, which can make the beans more expensive.
How is Specialty Coffee Measured?
Specialty coffee refers to coffee that has been graded 80 or above on a 100 point scale by a coffee taster through a process of "coffee cupping" or "cupping" which is a standardized method used to evaluate the quality and taste of coffee. The cupping process involves brewing a small amount of coffee and then evaluating it based on a set of criteria such as aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. The coffee is evaluated by a professional taster (cuppers) who will assign it a score based on the overall quality of the coffee.
The criteria that are used to evaluate the coffee are:
- Aroma: The smell of the coffee before it is brewed, including any floral, fruity, or nutty notes.
- Flavor: The taste of the coffee, including any sweetness, acidity, or bitterness.
- Acidity: The level of acidity in the coffee, which can range from bright and tangy to dull and flat.
- Body: The texture of the coffee, which can range from light and watery to full and heavy.
- Aftertaste: The lingering flavor of the coffee after it has been swallowed.
A score of 80 points or higher is considered to be a "Specialty" coffee, with a score of 85 or higher considered to be of "Exceptional" quality.
It is worth noting that cupping scores are not the only way to measure the quality of coffee, as it is both objective and subjective and it also depends on personal preference, but it is widely accepted as a standardized method in the coffee industry.
Does Freshness Matter in Scoring Specialty Coffee?
Freshness is an important factor in the scoring of specialty coffee, as it can greatly impact the taste and quality of the beans. Fresh coffee beans from the current harvest should be roasted and consumed within a relatively short time frame to ensure that the flavor and aroma are at their best. During the cupping process, the coffee is evaluated based on a set of criteria such as aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. Aroma and flavor are two important factors that can be affected by freshness. As coffee ages, it can lose its aroma and flavor and develop stale or musty notes. The ideal time frame for consuming specialty coffee is within 3 days to 4 weeks after roast. The best way to ensure that you are getting the freshest coffee possible is to buy whole bean coffee from a specialty roaster and grind it yourself just before brewing. Also, it's a good idea to buy coffee in small quantities, to ensure that you are consuming it within the optimal time frame. It's important to note that freshness can not make up for poor-quality beans, but it can enhance the taste of good quality beans.
Why is Specialty Coffee Important?
Specialty coffee is considered to be important for several reasons:
- Quality: Specialty coffee is carefully grown, harvested, and processed to ensure that it has superior flavor and aroma compared to regular commodity coffee.
- Support for small farmers: Specialty coffee often provides a higher price for small farmers, this allows for better living conditions for farmers and their families and help them to continue to produce high-quality coffee.
- Sustainability: Specialty coffee is often produced using ethical and sustainable farming practices, which helps to protect the environment and preserve the land for future generations.
- Direct trade: Specialty coffee is often produced by small farmers, who are paid a fair price for their crop, which helps to support local communities and improve the livelihoods of farmers.
- Traceability: Specialty coffee can often be traced back to a specific farm or cooperative, which allows for transparency and accountability in the supply chain. This helps to ensure that farmers are receiving fair prices for their crops and that consumers know where their coffee comes from.
- Education: Specialty coffee often requires skilled baristas and roasters to prepare and brew it. This allows for educational opportunities in the coffee industry and the dissemination of knowledge about coffee.
- Experience: Specialty coffee is often considered a gourmet product and its consumption is associated with a unique and memorable experience.
- Innovation: Specialty coffee industry is constantly innovating and experimenting with extraction methods, different processing methods, varietals and roasting techniques, which results in a diverse range of flavors and aromas to discover. This allows the industry to continuously improve and evolve.
By choosing specialty coffee, you are supporting ethical and sustainable practices, which means that the farmers and workers involved in the production process are treated fairly and paid a living wage. This leads to better living standards for the communities involved and helps to protect the environment as well as you get to experience a superior product.